This is a long one; it’s not a paper summary, it’s not technical, and it’s far more personal than what I usually post here. In this post, I discuss whether or not the password tool should even exist by telling a story about a community from 14 years ago.

Mystery Dungeons

This is a story about the Internet in 2006. It felt smaller than it does today—in some ways it was, but primarily this was because of digital spaces that I, and others, had carved out for ourselves. This is a story about the GameFAQs message boards.

In 2006, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team and Blue Rescue Team were released for the GameBoy Advance and the then-new Nintendo DS, respectively. A fresh take on the beloved Pokemon series, in the rescue team games you played as a Pokemon and went on missions to rescue other Pokemon.

Most of the time, these other Pokemon were artificial, procedurally generated by the game. But the game also allowed you to rescue other, real players.

If I fainted in one of these “mystery dungeons,” my game could create a “rescue password” / “SOS mail”. I would share this with another player, through email or an online forum. Another player would embark on a mission to rescue me, send me a “revival password” or “A-OK mail”, and be rewarded for their efforts.

The GameBoy Advance had no internet connectivity, and though the DS did, the game didn’t support it. There was no in-game communication. Instead, in 2006, the primary hub for game discussion was the GameFAQs message boards.

Rescue Teams

I didn’t realize this until writing this post, but at some point, everything on GameFAQ prior to 2008 was purged. Everything prior to 2006, as happens with the internet, has been lost to time. As a result, the story that follows might be a little fuzzy.

People would faint in a dungeon and turn to the internet for help:

At some point groups of people got together to create rescue teams: Team Elemental, Team Invincible Blast, [Team Extreme Opal Flamewheel], and more. Efforts were made to consolidate activity into these teams’ threads. That, of course, failed—the board got several dozen posts a day regardless.

These teams, and their members, came and went. Teams died from inactivity; leadership changed; smaller teams merged into larger ones.

Though we claimed to be rivals, one thing united all of these teams: an utter hatred for the A-OK generator, an obscure tool that threatened our community.

The A-OK Generator

Recall that these were offline games. As such, the rescue / revive functionality all happened on-device. Some people—today we’d call them dataminers—cracked the algorithm for generating SOS and A-OK mails. That is, they figured out how the game encoded data into these passwords and figured out how to recreate them.

This became a web tool that anyone could use; enter your SOS mail and instantly receive a computer-generated A-OK mail.

No waiting for someone to rescue you. No worrying if they had typed the password incorrectly. Just type it in and you’re set.

Sounds great, right? We all loathed it.

Why? Because it threatened our community. Brought together by a love of the game, many of us spent a significant portion of our free time rescuing others. Someone using the A-OK generator meant one fewer rescue for us—one fewer reason to play.

From the board-wide FAQ / community norms / community rules:

  1. Don’t use/ask about/post the link to the generator. It was made to facilitate rescues but is destroying this board. There are enough talented people here to rescue in any dungeon. Yes, it takes time and yes, it takes a few hours sometimes, but it is worth the wait.

From Team Invincible Blast:

  1. Do NOT post any links to the generator or ask about it, it is strictly forbidden and you WILL be kicked.

From Team Elemental:

4.) Do not use the A-OK Generator. This is frowned upon by all, and grounds for dismissal from the team

We shunned people who were found using the generator. Its existence of the generator brought the community into flame wars regularly.

But the more you try to stop people from talking about something, the more they will. Trolls posted the link to the generator, often just to annoy us.

We collectively, sincerely believed that the A-OK generator was “killing our community.” In some ways, it was; it made people less likely to visit us, and made members less likely to check in on it. At the same time, the community dying was but another example of the transience of digital spaces.

So why now?

The 10-year old me from 2006 would have probably been appalled that I was building this (though probably also curious). “You have become the very thing you swore to destroy,” as the meme goes.

In 2006, the A-OK generator took hobbies away from people, threatening a community that had been brought together by these games. Reasonable people may disagree; it’s totally fair to say that we should have simply found something else to do.

On the other hand, it was still our community, and our community norms were such that use of the tool was forbidden. Someone outside the community coming in with a tool that threatened it was, needless to say, unwelcome.

Today, the communities that I mentioned no longer exist. GameFAQs is slowly dying; now there are more scattered communities on various platforms, and an active Discord server. In the age where people are Extremely Online it’s no longer the case that a single website could have the same effect that it once did.

I think there is also some benefit to it: rescuing other people is considerably more lucrative than doing normal missions. Because my tool allows you to generate your own missions to go on, people wanting to get stronger could use it to make that easier. (And there’s no PVP or multiplayer where this would create an unfair advantage.)

And, in stark contrast to my 2006 self, I now think these tools are helpful. To the people who don’t have a Discord account or can’t find the Discord server, or who don’t have a paid Nintendo Switch Online subscription to post on a virtual rescue board, or who simply don’t have hours to wait to be rescued (especially in a hard, late-game dungeon!), these generators give them an escape hatch for when things go wrong in a dungeon.

This was true in 2006, too; I was just too young to see it. Honestly, they were probably more valuable back then, when information was more scarce and fewer people were online. (What can I say? I was 10.)

Why write this?

I found it important to think about this question as I built this tool. Sure, part of it was a trip down memory lane, reminiscing on the important roles that this video game series has played in my life.

But I do have a research interest in the implications of technology on people and communities, and I couldn’t not think about this. The parallels to technology automating away jobs are obvious, and even though this is just a toy example, it’s still my responsibility to reflect on how this might negatively impact people’s lives before I decide to build.

Today, I don’t feel bad about building this, and think it this is a net positive. Maybe that’s a sign of how I’ve changed. Or maybe it’s a sign of how video game communities have changed or how the internet has changed.

What happened to us?

I would feel this story incomplete if I didn’t include this part. What happened to the community described above?

The GameFAQs message boards were an obscure corner of the internet, but they were our obscure corner. As xkcd 1305 wrote, “it will probably vanish someday”—and indeed, everything prior to 2008 did—it was our meeting place.

Over time, the community grew and evolved, as communities do. Instead of just rescuing people, artists would post things that they drew; writers would post Choose Your Own Adventures (CYOAs) to engage the community; people would speculate about future installments in the series.

GameFAQs cracked down on this “off-topic” discussion, telling us that the boards should only be used for discussion of these games in particular and for doing rescues. Nothing else would be permitted, they said.

And so, as happens on the internet, several dozen of us—the most active among us—migrated to another forum. InvisionFree was a popular free forum host, so we made our own community there and let it grow. We had a xat chatbox (TIL xat still exists) at the bottom of the boards. A few years later, we migrated to Zetaboards, then when it was killed off, created a Skype group, and now a Discord server.

We don’t talk often, and not all of us made it to the Discord group. I’ve never met them in real life, and doubt that I ever will. But they were my “internet friends” at a time when I had few “real life friends,” and they made the world less lonely.

I’m pleased that the community still exists. The fact that it has made its way from GameFAQs in 2006 to Discord today, stopping at three other platforms along the way, is remarkable.

It’s also a reminder of the transience of digital spaces, though. As much as people like to say that the internet never forgets, each of those moves lost a couple of people. Everything pre-2008 has been lost to time. And some day, this post will be, too.